Friday, March 13th. A day steeped in superstition, report card comments, and writing St. Patrick’s Day themed lesson plans for the upcoming week abruptly transformed into the marker of the last day of traditional school instruction. The announcement thundered over the airwaves when the clock struck noon, and teachers frenetically created learning packets for students to complete during the anticipated three-week classroom hiatus.
Little did we know those three weeks would stretch into the three months leading to the finale of the school year. Little did we know those carefully designed learning packets would render themselves useless as the severity of the COVID-19 crisis precluded students from returning to the classroom. Not one teacher anticipated the fourth nine weeks becoming a crash course in distance learning, and certainly no one hoped it would serve as basic training for continuing remote instruction into the upcoming school year.
One day I was helping 10 and 11-year-olds navigate the angst and drama of adolescence (with many a sentence ending in “…and this is why there is NO LOVE in the 5th grade”), and the next I was assisting them in setting up their student accounts on Edmodo via screencast. The energy put into trying to convince my class of the relevance of dividing fractions and the need to start sentences with capital letters now went into posting resources, managing discussion threads, and conducting lessons via ZOOM. The plane wasn’t just being built in the air - the pilot was simultaneously learning to adjust the flight course so the passengers didn’t crash into middle school in the fall.
Everyone’s situation is different, so I will share the context of my experience this spring. My school district is 1:1 technology integrated in grades 3-12, with all grades 3-5 students having iPads to use for instruction. The majority of my students (23 out of 28) had regular, reliable access to the Internet and participated in our online classroom environment, attending video meetings and completing assignments. Prior to this crisis, I had taught online graduate level courses for teachers and had used learning management systems (LMS) for years to organize and enhance my teaching. I’m in favor of a balance of technology use in learning; while the benefits (and current necessity) of digital learning can’t be denied, kids still need to to be making, writing, and experiencing things by hand. Integrating those opportunities into a distance learning environment is essential.
While remote learning wasn’t the ideal means of closing (and likely beginning) a school year, there were several things from my experience that are indicators of the potential this season of distance teaching has to change education for good. Here are seven positives that came out of my crash course in remote learning with my 5th grade class:
1. I could focus more on teaching the content.
Without assemblies, special events, bathroom breaks, and other scheduling deviations, my attention went into the most important things to cover by the end of the year. I was probably more invested in finding new resources and different ways to teach the topics we had left to learn about because my school hours didn’t include the things that normally take my time and energy. Did my class miss out on the end-of-the-year fun and rights of passage they would normally enjoy? Absolutely, and it’s a shame they had to end their time in elementary school this way. However, the time we spent together for instruction zeroed in on the essentials. Without the normal distractions, remote learning can be an opportunity to focus on finding and creating the best content for instruction.
2. There were fewer classroom distractions when working with students.
You can have the best classroom management in the world and still lose instructional time due to student behaviors and interruptions. It’s a natural part of face-to-face instruction. Every students’ home environment provided some sort of distraction, from having siblings crash math class to someone’s television show providing the soundtrack to the day’s lesson. However, my attention to students when working with them in a small group or one-on-one in our Zoom meetings wasn’t compromised by having to correct or be on the alert for students who were off task. When they had my attention, they truly had all of me - and although our time together was shorter, the fact that the normal classroom distractions were not present worked in their favor.
3. Many parents were more communicative.
All of us - students, parents, guardians, and myself - were united in that this was the first time we had ever experienced complete remote classroom instruction. The ever changing situation, especially at the beginning, had many families ready and waiting for the latest updates on how instruction would be conducted, how to complete assignments, and how to submit work. More importantly, it gave us a chance to connect as people. Frustrations over navigating remote learning, the loneliness of self isolation, fear of the future - all of it came out in emails and Class Dojo messages. I chose to address every interaction with empathy and compassion. With all the life-and-death issues in the world, confusion over where to upload a document or retrieving a forgotten password deserved nothing but grace. It also made me more aware how to communicate concisely and thoroughly to families to ensure they had everything they needed. I like to think we both came out of this experience with greater respect for what each of us are responsible for during this time. You can learn more about how to communicate with parents effectively in The Thrive Guide.
4. There was more flexibility regarding when we held class.
Online learning is a combination of synchronous and asynchronous instruction. While I had resources and assignments students could access on Edmodo at anytime (or by a given date), we also had times when we met for direct and small group instruction using Zoom. I surveyed my students and parents using a Google form about when the best times were for our class to meet together. There were many things to consider as far as when students would be able to participate (parents working from home, times students may have to be in child care, access to wifi), but it was also a chance to meet when my students would be most alert and ready to participate. They were getting a say in something they had never been able to control: the best time for them to learn.
While not everyone could be accommodated, the majority of my class was able to meet for our synchronized instruction during our scheduled times in the afternoon. My students used the morning to “wake up” and complete assignments. Many body changes happen to 5th graders in the spring, and that slower start to the day was helpful. By the afternoon, they were ready to go. Students could always watch the replays of our meetings if they missed. If students needed help or to work in a small group, we could meet when needed, for however long was needed. It made for a relaxed atmosphere where students were focused and ready to learn - and we appreciated those times together a lot more.
5. Automating tasks gave me more time to focus on teaching.
This is one of the advantages of using a learning management system (LMS), which is an online classroom. Although it takes a while to get set up and going, I save more time later once I have a system established. Assignments can be uploaded and discussion posts for students to respond to can be written ahead of time and scheduled for when they are to be posted. Using the features in an LMS to create tests and quizzes that can be automatically graded undeniably is a game changer for teachers. The best thing of all is that archiving anything you create for a class lets you keep it to use and modify in future years. Using an LMS for automation allowed me to have time to concentrate on how I would teach when we had time together and to have time to look for new, creative ways to reach students - time that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.
6. It was a reminder of what matters most.
I have a lot of regrets about how I spent that last week of school before remote learning took over. Certain things I expected out of my kids now seem irrelevant. Did it really matter if the kids wrote in gel pen as long as they were getting their work finished? I don’t know if I’l ever pick that battle again. Yes, I was over hearing the same joke asked at least ten times, but what would I give now to hear them laugh and just be carefree kids, together again? And the time we wasted this year doing benchmark assessments and “practicing” for a yearly standardized assessment that couldn’t even take place? Those were hours, had we known how this year would unfold, that could have been spent learning new things and making memories while we had the chance.
Remote teaching has validated everything I believe to be important about education. Building relationships with and making connections to students are the things that move the needle towards improvement. It’s what has held us together during this time of crisis, not nit-picky rules or over gleaned data. There are things that I can’t wait to see go back to normal when this is over, and there are elements of “normal” that I never wish to see again. Testing is one of them.
7. I had time to focus on self care.
I’ve been a full-time elementary school teacher since I’ve been 21. My work days have been filled with more quiet in the past five months than they have been in 17 years. That hard, fast halt to life back in March was a chance to evaluate where I was physically and emotionally, particularly when the news was saturated with minute updates on a global health crisis. Teaching no doubt takes a toll on your head, heart, and soul. While I’ve improved tremendously on creating balance and establishing boundaries over the years, being knocked out of what I call my “teacher tunnel” during this time has made me reexamine how I care for myself. Now more than ever it’s important to prioritize your health and that of your family above all else. You are essential to the future of this profession, and it will require you to be your best self.
Yesterday afternoon while I was finishing this post, it rained. Not just a shower: a rowdy thunderstorm with pelting drops and vibrations that made the windows quake in their frames. Just when the sun started to peek through the clouds and the worst was over, it started to pour from the sky again, straight through the sunbeams. It was the perfect metaphor for this year of upheaval. An idiom we learn about during our figurative language unit is “when it rains, it pours.” No truer words could be said about the deluge of uncertainty that has beset us this year. Also true: when it rains, it grows. Difficult circumstances, no matter how torrential or their duration, are always temporary. All that “rain” seeps down into the essence of who we are. Growth comes from the storm. We won’t be the same again, nor should we be. If we can use what we learn from remote teaching to improve how we approach learning, Friday, March 13th, may turn out to be the luckiest day of all.